Let’s break down some players who have improved the most from the last time we saw them.
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Bridges’ growth from season to season has been linear, but clear.
As a freshman on Villanova’s national championship team, he was a defensive specialist who used his athleticism and instincts to make the occasional play on offense. As a sophomore, he became a good 3-point shooter – solidifying his place as one of the best 3-and-D guys in the country.
As a junior, he’s just an all-around stud with an all-around offensive game. The Wildcats were tasked with replacing Josh Hart – arguably the most valuable player in America last season. Jalen Brunson was expected to fill some of that scoring void, and he has. But Bridges is the biggest reason why Villanova hasn’t regressed one bit.
Here are Bridges’ stats in his three college seasons:
Of course, that doesn’t even highlight where he’s most valuable: on defense. Drivers, put the ball on the deck at your own risk with Bridges in the vicinity. He’s got Velcro for hands. Villanova allows a miniscule 81.8 points per 100 possessions with Bridges in the game; the Wildcats start four good defenders with him, mind you, and no other starter has a defensive rating below 88. He’s probably been the best defender in the country this season.
That part of his game isn’t new. Averaging nearly 18 points on 58 percent shooting is. What a player.
Jalen Hudson, Florida
Florida might be the most watchable team in the country this season, and outside of Chris Chiozza’s coast-to-coast turbo-zooms and KeVaugh Allen’s ridiculous shot-making, Hudson is a big reason why.
A Virginia Tech transfer, Hudson has thrived in Mike White’s go-go system. Hudson never averaged more than nine points per game for the Hokies. He’s averaging 21.7 points (in only 27.2 minutes!) for the Gators.Florida plays small – Egor Koulechov is its nominal power forward. He’s a good rebounder, but he’s 6-5; as we saw, that burned the Gators down the stretch against Marvin Bagley and the Duke Blue Devils. But against teams that, you know, don’t have Marvin Bagley, this is going to work for Florida.
Hudson’s emergence is the reason the Gators can play the way they do. Chiozza and Allen were proven, but small-ball only works if your small players are, like, good. Hudson is shooting 55 percent from the floor and 48.7 percent from 3, on a gaudy 6.7 attempts per game. That’ll play.
Florida scores 116.8 points per 100 possessions as a team, which ranks ninth. With Hudson in the game, that number spikes to 138.4, a mark that would easily constitute the best college basketball offense ever. Small sample size, of course. But it illustrates how good Hudson has been.
If he keeps this pace up, Florida will be on the short list of national title contenders.
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota
Murphy was steady in his first two seasons with the Golden Gophers, averaging more than 11 points and eight rebounds each year.
But as a junior, he’s become a star. Murphy has a double-double in all eight of Minnesota’s games this season and is averaging 21.4 points and 12.5 rebounds. Side note: it’s impressive that Murphy can gobble up all these clanks playing next to Reggie Lynch, one of the most physical bigs in the country. Now, Lynch’s main job is to box out and let the Murphy crash the glass. It’s working.
Minnesota also does plenty of damage on the offensive glass – the Gophers are rebounding 36.8 percent of their own misses, a top-30 mark in the country. The Lynch-Murphy pairing works on defense, but on offense, it would be interesting to see what Murphy could do as a center – in other words, with more space. He has a solid post game, but he’s a face-up monster. Get Murphy in the mid-post, looking at the rim with a head of steam, and there few defenders who even have a chance. He has remarkable body-control for his size, with nice hand education to go with it.
Richard Pitino will need to optimize Minnesota’s rotation to let Lynch and Murphy thrive, because they overlap on offense. But keep an eye on Murphy this year, who’s a legitimate Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.
Luke Maye, North Carolina
Maye has been awesome in every game this season besides Michigan State, where he played against Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges.
North Carolina desperately needed a secondary star to step up next to Joel Berry with the departures of Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley. Truth is, Maye has been better than Berry this season. That’s a good thing for the Tar Heels.
It’s possible that Maye had this in him as North Carolina’s fourth big last season. We saw flashes, as Kentucky knows. Whatever. Maye is balling thus far – he’s averaging 20.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He’s shown a diverse offensive game; Maye is perfectly capable of playing bully-ball against smaller opponents, or he can rain fire from behind the 3-point line. Maye is shooting 45.5 percent from range. The 2.6 assists may not sound like much, but that’s excellent for a power forward. Outside of Ethan Happ, he might be the best high-post passer in the game.
Maye is much different than your typical North Carolina big man. Usually, the Tar Heels win because they have the strongest, most athletic front line. Maye has a good build, and is a better athlete than most think – but his game is predicated on a skill level that’s off the charts. For a team that’s otherwise low on outside shooting, Maye is particularly valuable.
UNC could really get rolling once Cam Johnson returns, which would allow Maye to spend more time at center and space the floor.
D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M
Hogg immediately passes the eye test. At 6-9, 220 pounds with a pretty outside stroke, he’s every coach’s dream. The problem up until this season: he just wasn’t efficient enough. That’s changed as a junior.
Hogg shot below 40 percent from the floor as a freshman and a sophomore. He’s been excellent this season – he’s averaging 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 53 percent from 3. Hogg has also made a defensive impact – he’s averaging more than a block and a steal. That’s a huge development for a player whose defensive effort was spotty at best in his first two seasons.
He’s proof that you shouldn’t give up on guys who are that size and who have the potential to be elite shooters, even if they don’t show it right away. Hogg allows Texas A&M to have great lineup versatility – he shoots well enough and is a good enough athlete to play small forward next to the Aggies’ two stud big men, Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. But Hogg would play power forward for most teams, and when A&M wants to go “small” (quote marks on small, because Hogg is the size of a four. But small in the sense that he’s playing up a position), it can do so in a pinch without sacrificing anything on the glass.
Hogg wasn’t anywhere near Jayson Tatum’s level when Tatum was a freshman, but his performance this season has been Tatum-esque. If he keeps this up, Texas A&M could make the short trip to San Antonio.
Kyle Guy, Virginia
The once-flamboyant Guy has ditched the man-bun as a sophomore, much to the chagrin of college basketball Twitter. But Virginia fans will take this performance. He’s more than doubled his scoring output from a year ago; Guy is averaging 16 points on 43 percent 3-point shooting for a team that desperately needs offense. Anyone who watched Virginia’s game against Wisconsin (86 points between them) can agree.
Guy made our all-sleeper team back over the summer, and he’s lived up to that billing. He’s in a different mold than Virginia stars of the past, as Cavaliers assistant coach Jason Williford told NCAA.com then.
“He’ll be used in different ways than how we used those big, physical wings, like a Malcolm Brogdon, a Justin Anderson or a Joe Harris,” Williford said. “We want him to be himself. We want him flying off screens, being aggressive. We’re going to have to find ways to get him his kind of shots.”
Virginia has done just that. Guy’s 16 points per game may not jump off the page, but considering the offense he plays in, it should. Once again, the Cavaliers rank 351st of 351 teams in pace. Take tempo out of the equation, and Guy is scoring 34.5 points per 100 possessions. For context, Grayson Allen has a higher raw scoring average than Guy – but he’s only scoring 28.5 points per 100 possessions. Guy is making the most of his opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s held his own on defense – that’s the reason why he didn’t play a ton as a freshman. Virginia has the best defense in America, and Guy’s on-off court splits fall in the middle of the pack of Cavalier rotation players. Considering what he brings on offense, that’s a huge win for Tony Bennett.
Kaiser Gates, Xavier
Gates is basically Bridges-lite. At 6-8, 228 points with a nice outside stroke, he has 3-and-D potential.
Guys who are that size, that agile, and can shoot are inherently valuable. Gates’ stroke came and went last season – he had big games, but only shot 39 percent from the floor and 34 percent from 3. This season, those numbers are way up – Gates is averaging 11.3 points on 45 percent 3-point shooting. He’s the perfect complement to Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura; he can take on the toughest defensive assignment while hitting 3s and attacking closeouts on offense.
The defense is what matters most. Of course, Bluiett deserves the most credit for being the stud that he is. But Gates makes his life easier; Bluiett can charge up on defense against lesser-threats so he can carry the load on offense. Few stars have that luxury. Gates fills his role perfectly; he does what’s asked of him and makes the best players on the team even better.
Once Bluiett leaves, perhaps we’ll see an expended offensive arsenal from Gates. But for now, he’s the perfect third option.